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Political philosophy

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from a detail of "The School of Athens", a fresco by Raphael(Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from a detail of “The School of Athens”, a fresco by Raphael. Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Politics secured the two Greek philosophers as two of the most influential political philosophers.)

Political philosophy is a branch of philosophy that studies issues of political power, the state, government, law, politics, peace, justice and the common good among others. It is considered as one of the branches of practical philosophy alongside the philosophy of law and moral philosophy.

As a philosophical research, it differs from those conducted by the human and social sciences (sociology, history, psychology, political science) in that, unlike those which are attached to what exists historically and particularly it is based on the search for a universal, guided by the question of the justice, the best and the legitimate.

Nowadays, political science has become inseparable from political philosophy.


According to Leo Strauss, any attempt to define political philosophy involves circumventing two errors:

  • The first consists in considering political philosophy only as a subordinate dependence of philosophy as a whole. This abusive generalization is problematic, insofar as it avoids the profound differences between the history of political philosophy and that of philosophy.
  • The second is to see it as a mere extension of political analysis. Indeed, if political philosophy comes out of political thought, all political thought is not a political philosophy: “a political thinker who would not be a philosopher would be interested or attached above all to an order or a law for a specific policy; the political philosopher is interested and focuses above all on the truth “. Because its object is strongly rooted in human reality, “by a relationship at once necessary, unsurpassable, and indefinitely problematic with the experiences and opinions actually present in the real life of the city,” political philosophy is characterized by a constant tension between theory and practice: while assuming a universal scope, it must share the existing.



Socrates is generally regarded as the founder of political philosophy. Indeed, he seems to have been the first to formulate a global and absolute critique of an existing political system, although a discourse of political science is also found in his contemporary Thucydides, and a political philosophy is to be found in a fragmentary state in what remains of the work of Heraclitus.

The initial debate that founds political philosophy as an essential domain of philosophy is found in Plato’s “The Phaedo” dialogue, when Socrates indicates that in his youth he was led to abandon the natural sciences in order to take an interest in opinions from the city. What is commonly called, with Socrates, his “second navigation,” signifies the starting point of philosophy as “political philosophy.” This starting point is already carrying an ambiguity, which is at the beginning of the works of Aristotle, Metaphysics and Politics. Each is called first science. The first task of political philosophy is thus to justify its primacy over things that are beyond Nature (meta ta phusikè). For Aristotle, man is a political animal; he writes in Politics:

“The city is among the realities that exist naturally, and (…) man is by nature a political animal. And he who is without city, naturally and not because of circumstances, is either a degraded being or above humanity. It is comparable to the man treated ignominiously by Homer of: Without family, without law, without home, because, at the same time as naturally stateless, he is also a brand of discord and one can compare it to an isolated piece in the game of backgammon.”

Middle Ages

In the context of intellectual renewal of the twelfth century, political philosophy, after several centuries of silence, experienced a rebirth with the Policraticus of Jean de Salisbury (1159). It is a vast treatise in eight books, of Platonizing and Augustinian inspiration. John of Salisbury was unaware of Aristotle’s Politics. He proposes in this treatise an ideal of a terrestrial city oriented for spiritual ends, where the king exercises his power in close collaboration with the Church and in defiance of his lay counselors.

It is only in the Middle Ages, when receiving the texts and commentaries of Aristotle’s thought, that we will come to speak of the first philosophy or science of the first principles concerning the texts of Aristotle in which Stagirite analyzes the polysemy of the senses of Being and the question of ousia (of essence). What we are going to call Metaphysics (in Greek: meta ta phusikè, “what is beyond nature”) will therefore be strangely detached from political studies, in contradiction with Aristotle’s own words, at the beginning of his political works, in which he says that the first philosophy is political philosophy.

For Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “the power of princes, in so far as it is a power, comes from God.” In the Commentary on the Sentences, he writes that “spiritual power and temporal power come both from divine power”. Saint Bonaventure conciliated the divine origin of authority and the elective system; he emphasized the dangers of the hereditary system and insisted that elected chiefs are usually the best. However, he considered that this election was merely a designation and that it belonged to God, that is, to the spiritual power of God, to confer power on the appointed leader.

Modern era

Without losing sight of this native difficulty of the distinction between the first philosophy of Aristotle and the political philosophy, this one knew in the 17th and 18th centuries a radical turning point with the appearance of the theories of the social contract, developed by Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), John Locke (Treaty of Civil Government, 1690), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract, 1762) and Emmanuel Kant. These theorists sought a foundation of power less debatable than the divine right (theorized by St. Bonaventure) and less arbitrary than the force (theorized by Machiavelli). Their theories rested on the hypothesis of a state of nature, a fictitious state of men having no other link between them than their common quality of being human beings, each being free and equal to all.

Giulia Sissa believes that in the transition from a theory of political animal, naturally inclined to sociability (Aristotle), to a mechanistic view of human nature (Hobbes), the anthropological foundation of politics is redesigned.

Contemporary period

Political philosophy is still largely focused on the examination and discussion of social contract theories developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

One of the currently most commented works of contemporary political philosophy is explicitly in this so-called “contractualist” perspective: it is John Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971). Other avenues were nevertheless opened wit the works like those of Michel Foucault, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Pierre Dupuy or Yves Michaud. Here again, it is sometimes from the rediscovery and the discussion of classical authors that new perspectives emerged – as Claude Lefort’s analyzes of the work of Nicolas Machiavel, author of the Prince ( 1512).

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